Coming off a 32-win season, the Fort Hays State women's basketball team will be tested right away against two of the better teams from the Northern Sun this weekend in St. Joseph, Mo.
With a strong cast back from last year, Fort Hays State coach Tony Hobson said he doesn't mind getting an early-season challenge.
"If you play tough games like that early and you can survive them, it does your team a lot of good," Hobson said. "I think this group should be able to rise to the challenge, but we'll find out real fast.
"One way or the other, you're going to find out what you need to work on and how far you need to go, or you're going to feel pretty good about your team at this point. I think under the circumstances of this year, I think it's a good thing (to be tested)."
The No. 7-ranked Tigers will open against Minnesota Duluth at 1:30 p.m. Friday in the St. Joseph Civic Arena before going against Concordia-St. Paul at 2 p.m. Saturday.
Minnesota Duluth returns nine players from last year's team went 23-7 and reached the NCAA DII Central Regional. Concordia-St. Paul brings back seven players this season after going 21-7 in 2018-19.
"It's going to be a tough couple of games but we're definitely up for the challenge," Tiger senior guard Kacey Kennett said. "It will be a good way to start off the season.
"We'll be able to see what we need to do better and just go from there."
Hobson said he was pleased with the Tigers' exhibition showing against Kansas State, a 78-60 loss on Nov. 1.
"I was satisfied with what we got out of it," Hobson said. "I thought we battled hard. We kind of got worn down in the fourth quarter. They finally got to us on the boards; that was the main difference in the game I thought. We just had a hard time sticking with them, especially them getting so many offensive rebounds.
"But I thought we got a lot of good stuff on offense, got a lot of good shots. We got to the line more than they did. We forced six more turnovers than they did. I thought all in all it was really good for what our team needed. It was good for us, we needed to see some of that pressure."
The Tigers bring back four starters from last year — Kennett (second team All-MIAA), Lanie Page (third team) and Belle Barbieri (honorable mention) and Taylor Rolfs.
"We're farther along than we normally are because we have so many returners," Hobson said. "Some of our newcomers are already experienced players so they can step right in and go. I think we're where we need to be right now. We've still got a long ways to go, but I think we're in a good spot at this time."
The Tigers will have to replace last season's MIAA player of the year in Tatyana Legette.
"Obviously losing T was a huge hit, she was an All-American, she was a stud," Kennett said. "But we definitely have players that are going to step up this year. We're looking to do the same thing we did last year and hopefully go a little further."
The Tigers will have to fill the void left by Legette on the boards. She averaged 8.4 rebounds a game last year.
"I think we're covering it up OK so far," Hobson said. "K-State was a test on the boards, but I'm not sure I've ever had a team that would have been able to rebound with that group, because they're big and athletic. Along with her athletic ability, T just gave us an effort and and a relentless pursuit of just having to have it every time. We've just been concentrating on making sure we all go to the boards every possession and we don't catch ourselves standing around.
"I think Whitney Randall is going to be a real good rebounder for us. As we see her minutes go up compared to last year, I think we'll see her get more boards."
Junior guard Jaden Hobbs transferred to FHSU from Oklahoma State, while sophomore forward Cassidy Haufler joins the Tigers after a year at Cloud County Community College. The Tigers have two freshmen in Lauryn Reither (Oklahoma City) and Allison McFarren (Wichita).
"They've all fit in nicely," Hobson said. "I think a lot of that is because they want to be on a good team. They don't have an agenda as far as they need to do this or that, they just want to be on a good team."
"They've jumped right in and it all just kind of clicked," Kennett said of the newcomers. "They're great people on the court and off the court. It helps our team dynamic out a lot.
"Team chemistry is huge. The coaches do a really good job of finding people that will fit. The (new players) definitely fit our program very well."
Hobson said the Tigers' style of play will be similar to recent teams.
"We'll have an inside presence so we can go in there and get easy baskets," he said. "I think we're going to have a good 3-point shooting team. I think we'll probably get more penetration to the basket than we've had in the past because our point guards are really aggressive going to the basket."
UMD returns three starters, including two that received all-conference recognition last year in Sarah Grow (second team All-NSIC) and Brooke Olson (All-NSIC freshman team).
"They have a lot back. Very good in the post," Hobson said. "It will be a stiff test for an opening game. I'm glad we have them on a neutral court and not up there.
"Saturday, playing Concordia St. Paul, they did lose more off of their team than Duluth did, so they're going to have a few new faces, but I think that will be a good test for us too."